WSJ: Activists New and Old Jab Art World


May 7, 2015 9:07 p.m. ET

Last weekend, the art-activist group the Guerrilla Girls engaged in a typically bumptious gesture: projecting images from their latest campaign on the side of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s building in lower Manhattan as a block party to fete the new location wound to a close.

“Dear Art Collector,” read the message, traced in bright light from a mobile projector run by another New York City activist group, The Illuminator Art Collective.

“art is sooo expensive!

even for billionaires

we totally get why

you can’t pay all your employees a living wage”

It has been three decades since the Guerrilla Girls first began plastering New York’s art districts with funny, statistic-filled posters decrying the dearth of female artists on museum and gallery walls. Now the group—along with a new generation of artist-activists—continues to skewer what they see as the art world’s hypocrisy and corruption.

Never mind that the Whitney, which declined to comment on the “Dear Art Collector” projection, now owns more than 90 works by Guerrilla Girls. Or that some of the group’s members—clad in their trademark gorilla suits, to preserve anonymity—mingled with curators at a recent artist reception at the new building. An exhibit of their posters, stickers and billboards opened this month at Abrons Arts Center downtown, and the Guerrilla Girls have embarked on a new campaign.

Targets include everything from the art establishment’s lack of diversity—an issue that by some measures has made only marginal progress since 1985—to labor issues and soaring prices paid by wealthy collectors in today’s turbocharged art market.

“We are the agitated outsiders, the creative complainers, and we like it that way,” a Guerrilla Girl who identified herself as Käthe Kollwitz said in a recent interview. (Members assume the names of dead female artists.)

Recently, the group has teamed up with newer groups of activist artists. They include the Illuminator, as well as Occupy Museums and the Gulf Labor artist coalition, which on Friday shut down the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum with a protest over labor practices at Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, where the museum is planning to build a new branch.

Another Guerrilla Girl, Frida Kahlo, said she was heartened to see a new crop of artists engaging in political art, many of them in collectives that operate outside the traditional art market.

“They are veering away from the idea of the lone individualistic genius,” Ms. Kahlo said. “They don’t want to participate in the art system.”

Take Noah Fischer, a Brooklyn artist and activist involved in the action at the Guggenheim organized by Gulf Labor, a group that has staged multiple protests over what it sees as exploitative conditions for the largely migrant workforce on Saadiyat Island.

Trained as a sculptor, Mr. Fischer, 38 years old, said he quit showing his work in traditional galleries amid the financial downturn, having concluded that the same economic system that led to the crisis was also fueling the art market: “I thought, I want to be challenging that system, not trying my hardest to be supported by those people.”

In 2011 he joined the Occupy Wall Street movement in Zuccotti Park and wrote a manifesto that catalyzed the Occupy Museums movement. Occupy Museums mounted a protest in September at the Metropolitan Museum of Art over the new plaza endowed by billionaire David H. Koch and recently helped stage an action outside the Whitney over an adjacent natural-gas pipeline.

On May 1, also known as International Workers Day, Mr. Fischer was among the protesters who dropped leaflets from the Guggenheim’s top tier and unfurled a red banner urging the institution to “Meet Workers’ Demands Now!” Some sat on the floor and refused to leave, while others, including some Guerrilla Girls, marched outside. Ultimately, museum officials shut down the building for the day.

Museum officials said in a statement that they have kept “open lines of communication” with representatives of Gulf Labor and that the Guggenheim has been working with authorities and its partners in Abu Dhabi to “advance progress on conditions for workers who will build the future museum.”

The Illuminator is a frequent partner in museum protests and other political actions. Teaming up with the Guerrilla Girls “was a way to collaborate with our forbearers and our sisters,” said Mark Read, 48, an Illuminator founder who also teaches at New York University.

The NYPD returned the sculpture of Edward Snowden that was placed in Fort Greene Park in the early morning hours of April 6. PHOTO: GEOFFREY CROFT/NYC PARK ADVOCATE

Last month, the collective projected an image of a bust of Edward Snowden over a column at Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park. It was a tribute to an action by a separate group of artists, who earlier that day had glued a 100-pound bust of the former national-security consultant to the top of a monument there honoring Revolutionary War prisoners. (The bust was swiftly removed.)

On Wednesday the New York Police Department returned the bust. In return, two of the artists each agreed to pay a $50 summons for being in the park after hours, according to their lawyer, Ronald Kuby.

For the Guerrilla Girls, years of activism have conferred a sort of legitimacy that makes some members uneasy. The group’s work has been shown at the prestigious Venice Biennale and major museums including the Tate Modern in London and Paris’s Centre Pompidou.

Women artists and artists of color have more visibility than they did 30 years ago, and some museum curators are making efforts “to cast a wider net,” Ms. Kollwitz said.

But, as one sticker from the group’s current campaign points out, women still accounted for only a fraction of the one-person shows last year at the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Officials at the latter two said the sticker undercounted the number of solo shows by women in 2014 at the Met, and in 1984 at the Whitney.

“I always feel uncomfortable about this museum attention, because we want to be the royal thorn in their side,” said fellow member Ms. Kahlo. “We are here as the art world’s conscience.”